A few days ago, I had lunch with Chris Shipley. I remember being impressed by her when Stewart Alsop introduced her to me when she became the Executive Producer of DEMO. Very few women were likely to hold such a highly visible position in the high-tech industry in 1996 (and there may not be too many today either). Thirteen years later, after watching thousands of products, helping hundreds of companies, she is really the same person: soft-spoken, matter-of-fact, quietly observant of everything around her and gently humorous. However secure she may be in her judgment, she remains incredibly humble. Of course, others are more than happy to speak up for her. As Marc Benioff told me, “Chris has been a provocateur and industry visionary that has driven all of us forward in important new ways.”
DEMO: Watching the entire High-Tech market… One of the most striking characteristics of Chris is her rare ability to master multiple areas of the high-tech industry and select companies for DEMO that represent a large range of technologies and applications and address multiple market sectors. While most analysts and pundits tend to focus on one main trend or try to seize “the” next big thing, Chris is more interested in finding the patterns that, at a given time, build up the overall industry landscape in its actual diversity, all the more so as most users have more than one need at a time. Whether she looks (or looked) at salesforce.com, VMware, Xfire, Glam, WebEx, Blurb, Six Apart, at an infrastructure play or a Web 2.0 application, she wants to find the products that will make a difference in the life of people, be they John Doe or IT folks. Alsop, “who always likes to take credit for hiring Chris to run DEMO,” as he told me, remembers that what went into his decision to select her (“one of the best decisions I ever made, obviously),” was primarily this: “Reading what Chris wrote about products, I always had the feeling that she had an intuitive sense about products and how customers would react to them. And that’s the critical element in putting DEMO together every year.”
The reality is that in 1996 when she started, there were significantly fewer products to look at, and fewer trends to follow, and one can only marvel at her capability to work around the clock, decipher the meaning and the value of some products despite the dismal presentations entrepreneurs sometimes make, and figure out potentially emerging trends through eventually half-baked concepts — while keeping away from fads or ephemeral flashy ideas. Having a nose for a few winning companies here and there is one thing that deserves lots of kudos. Exhibiting such prolonged leadership and perceptiveness as Chris has for so long at the helm of one of the most famous high-tech conferences in the world and whose choices are scrutinized and commented by hundreds of competent observers twice a year is a whole different game. Only a handful of extraordinarily insightful VCs have delivered a similar continuous performance.
“All-around startup enthusiast...” That’s how Chris describes herself. Chris will hand the DEMO baton over to Matt Marshall of VentureBeat in the Fall, and focus exclusively on her own startup, the Guidewire Group, that she co-founded with Mike Sigal in 2004. “DEMO is a great platform. Lots of companies. Lots of ideas,” she says. “Yet, DEMO only allows a certain level of engagement. With The Guidewire Group, I can go much further. I love working with young companies because with the right people and a right idea in an early market, it’s all discovery and invention and that’s intellectually very interesting. You can have a bigger impact.”
Chris definitely knows how to speak to entrepreneurs — mostly because her leadership starts with the ability to listen. While it is easy when you have such breadth and wealth of experience to become somewhat overwhelming, Chris is especially gifted in guiding them, starting from their own perspective to smoothly steer them towards a better assessment of where they are at and what they can do. I especially liked her speech at the closing of a recent French Tech Tour where she was inviting the audience to the Guidewire Group’s Innovate!Europe Showcase. While she could have dogmatically listed the Do’s and Dont’s when venturing to the United States, she presented a well thought-out slideshow of the Christopher Columbus enterprise. Yes, “It takes time,” she reminded the audience, “to become an ‘overnight success'”, but you will eventually manage it. “Isabel rejected Columbus three times before finally backing his venture.”
Originally from the East Coast, Chris is a Silicon Valley guru. Although the Valley is unambiguously the hotbed of entrepreneurship (with 52% of start-up companies created by immigrant founders), Chris doesn’t wait for all the entrepreneurs who might benefit from coming over here to just show up with their suitcases and their dreams. They need to have a better idea of what to expect — or simply be able to remotely benefit from the accumulated knowledge of the Valley’s unique ecosystem. So, she travels and reaches out for them in their own countries: “The Valley doesn’t have a lock on innovation,” she writes in her DEMOletter (http://www.demo.com/community/?q=node/285976). “Smart ideas are inspired by a range of experiences.” The Guidewire Group’s Going Global workshops for Innovate!Europe (http://www.innovate-events.com) are extremely successful. At the time of our lunch, she was getting ready to fly to Taipei. Chris is definitely open to the “rest of the world,” first because she is extremely cultivated, and secondly because she is curious. Incidentally, she seems to be an habitué of Dehillerin, Paris’s oldest and probably most famous cookware shop.
Chris is one of the most successful women in the high-tech industry, although “fewer than 10 percent of venture-based technology companies have a woman on the founding team.” I like the fact that this statistic doesn’t lead her to simply declare (http://www.demo.com/community/?q=node/20448) that it is because “venture is a male-dominated business dismissive, if not outright hostile, toward women […] Women-founded startups are often, in my experience,” she states, “a different breed and have a different funding need. In fact, many young women benefit more from mentor capital than venture capital, at least in the earliest days of their young companies’ lives.” One thing is certain, though: “I do want to encourage young women to entrepreneurship of any type,” says Chris — who had been at the board of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs and Executives (http://www.fweande.org) for almost ten years!
More about Chris Shipley: